One-On-One With Pacific Eden's Executive Chef, Richard Roberts
When South African-born Richard Roberts was growing up he dreamed of playing for the famed South African Springboks rugby team.
But the culinary industry was his life's calling, becoming one of Cape Town's youngest executive chefs for the Sheraton Group of hotels in Cape Town.
For the past nine years, Chef Roberts has taken to the high seas leading a small army of chefs and cooks to produce over 10,000 delicious meals per day - and that's before seconds.
But there is one age-old kitchen of the seas question to still be answered: just how many eggs does each cruise need?
How did you become a chef?
Growing up in South Africa, as boys we all want to grow up to be rugby players. I grew up in a great family way and when I finished high school I went to England to study further, and when I came back I said this [cooking] is what I want to do. The family was quite shocked at first, but here I am.
Have you always been a chef?
Yes, I have. Since leaving school.
How long have you been in the cruise industry?
Nine years total, with past six as Executive Chef with P&O.
What was it about cruise ships that lured you?
In English they say a rolling stone gathers no moss. I get bored quickly and I stayed home for a while and did a lot of things, but I got my certificate as a Cordon Blue Chef, worked for the Sheraton Group in Cape Town, and at the time I was one of the youngest executive chefs in South Africa.
I then got engaged, but that didn't go very well so I thought it was time to try something else.
I saw an ad in the paper looking for chefs to help in the Middle East. It didn't say where and just had a number to call in Cyprus. So I did, and had a phone interview and it all happened quick after that. I actually called my Mother a few days later from Johannesburg airport and said, "Bye, I'm off overseas." She was not too happy.
I was on a flight to Dubai and we still didn't know exactly where we were going. We were told to wait at a gate and then it finally came up with Kuwait. Once we landed we were met by a military convoy and taken to the tents in the desert.
At that time it was the biggest catering event at the turn of the century. We were serving around 12,000 soldiers, three times per day, sometimes four times per day with an additional 5,000 troops on rotation. It was the US base set up in Kuwait and we were feeding all these people until they moved up to Baghdad under two giant tents.
Which soldiers were you feeding?
All of them. Marines, Special Forces and regular army that were on the two bases protecting us. And they were spoiled, let me tell you. Breakfast was made to order from eggs and pancakes, but we also did steaks, crab legs and anything else available.
So how many chefs and cooks does it take to feed an army?
We had only four executive chefs plus a catering manager. Additionally, we had 15 Indian cooks to help produce the meals and 23 Egyptian cleaners. It was very hands on and non-stop.
If they didn't feel like our meals they also had another tent which had both Burger King and Dominos as an option. It was a very impressive setup in the middle of the desert.
Where to from Kuwait?
Then I came back home and I started a little bistro on a lovely wine estate just outside of Cape Town. I did get bored very quickly though and a friend of mine said why don't you try the ships and so here I am. It's tough being a family man and being away from home for long stretches at a time but it pays the bills.
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Next to the Captain, you are the most important person on the ship, as you feed us. Do you agree?
Well we think we are the most important, not the Captain! [laughs].We do around 10,000 meals per day, excluding seconds, which happens a lot.
It's a little beehive in there. We run all 15 dining options - including each option in the Pantry from the one kitchen. It's our own engine room equivalent.
Sailing around the world on ships, how do different ports influence the meals served on board?
The main menus are drawn up in head office but we do have the freedom to tweak here and there. Essentially they look at the majority of guests who will be on board and formulate it from there.
With Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden being based in Australia, and with over 80 percent of people on board being Australian, it's the most Australian-based menu we've ever had.
How many staff do you have?
I have approximately 73 cooks to take care of. I'm not just the head chef, I'm also the mother, the father, brother, sister and counsellor when I need to be.
It's tough on the crew as they are away from their families for eight months at a time, so you can't be happy every single day and you're just going to have a bad day occasionally and it's my job to take care of them.
They are the engine of the kitchen and the guys producing non-stop food, so I make sure they are looked after and taking care of them is very important.
How many eggs does it take each cruise?
[Chuckles] Well, we use around 36-dozen eggs per day; we cook approximately two tonnes of meat and 800 kilograms of fish per day also. There is a lot of preparation to be had.
So the logistics behind the scene is enormous. It's a well oiled machine.
Yes, it's like a game of chess. It's more about logistics and being planned all the time. It's very different to a hotel on land. There is food 24 hours per day, all over the ship. The [preparation] is around the clock with bakeries and other areas split across day and night shifts.
How do you keep yourself and staff motivated?
Best way is to get into your routine and be planned out for your 11-12 hours per day you are filling in. I encourage my guys on days off or during spare time to go to the gym and get some exercise and then everyone has their own thing they like to do for R&R, whatever that may be.
Then I try to give them time off during port calls where able. It gives them a chance to get some time off and go walk, enjoy the sun, swim. We try and give them as much time off as possible when some of the restaurants are closed for lunch during port days.
The Chef's Table on board - that is a free-design menu?
Absolutely, we can do whatever we want in there with no restriction, which is always enjoyable. That's our own little creative domain.
It's available every night, but with a minimum of eight people and maximum of 14 by bookings only. The meal is over several courses, which are then paired with fantastic premium wines.
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